An acclaimed scholar digs into the conventional wisdom about free speech.
Can anybody ever speak or write a controversial truth without consequences flowing from those words? So asks Fish (Humanities and Law/Florida International Univ.; Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom, 2016, etc.), and his answer is that nearly always, consequences abound. “The one thing speech isn’t is free,” he writes at the beginning of the first chapter. “There are costs to those who produce it and to those who are subjected to it.” Throughout this brief book, the author challenges those who argue that the First Amendment is a bedrock principle. Fish believes that free speech does not rise to “principle” under the Constitution but rather resides there as a “value”—and values are squishy, dependent on the timing, location, and manner of the speech. When opposing parties argue over a value, writes the author, somebody will ultimately lose the argument—meaning, obviously, that the loser might experience adverse consequences. Fish fills the chapters with controversies, some from actual occurrences and some hypothetical. One real example: Must society give Holocaust deniers an untrammeled voice? If the answer is yes, Holocaust survivors and their descendants suffer pain. If the answer is no, then the free speech of the deniers has been circumscribed. After an introductory chapter explaining that free speech controversies arise because censorship in any society is inevitable, the author uses the remaining four chapters to examine controversial speech from the vantage point of university campuses, organized religion, and the idea of “fake news.” In the epilogue, Fish tackles the question “What Does It All Mean?” For the author, it means that free speech will never be—and should never be—completely free.
Fish’s points arrive in thoughtful, dense provocations that will require close attention from readers.